Am I Normal? Should I move home? (Transcript)

Monday, November 1, 2021

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Mona Chalabi:
I’ve spent the past seven years trying to imagine two alternate realities: Life in New York, and life in London.

I moved to New York in 2014. I went for a job that felt like it could have been my big break. I made friends in New York. I had boyfriends, and then I had ex-boyfriends. I had a job, and then I had a career.

New York was the place I grew... but London was the place that I grew up. And for years, I wondered which city I could commit to.

Decisions can get heavier as you get older. In my twenties, moving meant packing up some crappy posters and some even crappier H&M outfits. In my thirties, there’s more baggage—literally, I own a couch now, but also emotionally. Every move feels like it’s more likely to be the last one. And that means that there’s even more pressure to get it right. This decision feels claustrophobic, restrictive... and so it's just kind of scary.

If you’re thinking, “New York, London, po-TAY-toe, po-TAH-toe”, or “al-lum-IN-yum, a-LOOM-in-num”, that’s not how I feel about it. For me, these cities represent two totally different ways of life.

New York is spontaneous. You can decide at 6pm that you want to go on a date at 7pm, and by 8pm, you’re in this Indian-Mexican fusion restaurant with a waiter dressed as an elephant playing you accordion music.

London is slower, safer. Fewer men in elephant costumes, more quiet evenings in. It’s also where my family lives. The stability on offer is comforting... and it’s kind of dull.

It feels like I have to choose between spontaneous New Yorker Mona and stable Londoner Mona. But how? I know I'm not the only one thinking about this question right now. How do you choose between staying and going?

I'm Mona Chalabi and I'm a data journalist. Numbers help me make sense of a chaotic world. There is something that is orderly and comforting about the boxes of a spreadsheet. But the truth is, life is messy... and numbers have their limitations. No matter how helpful they can be, numbers can never tell the whole story.

From the TED Audio Collective, this is Am I Normal?

Because I’m me, I made a spreadsheet to help me decide whether to move or stay put. It had 46 columns of criteria for the perfect apartment, and looking at home listings, I started to meticulously add properties in both cities one by one, while questions swam in my head.

"But what about my New York friends? Which place has got better food? How will I even get my stuff to London? London’s got better healthcare… How am I going to get my couch to London?"

And how do I even find the right answer?

'American men vs British men… New York has better public transport, London has cleaner public transport… Will I affect my U.S. immigration status if I head back to London? Which city is better for creativity… "

And then there was a pandemic, and all the questions suddenly got a whole lot more complicated...

COVID got a lot of people considering whether they should move. While I was being indecisive, other people in New York were making up their minds.

The city changed, fast. The richest were the first to leave, driving their black luxury SUVs to second homes upstate or just quickly buying up new homes.

In fact, 1 in 20 adults in the U.S. moved because of the COVID-19 outbreak. That’s according to a big Pew study that was conducted in November 2020.

When you look at households that filed permanent change-of-address forms with the U.S.P.S. in 2020, there are a few clear patterns. Life became less urban and more rural. The number of people who left big cities like New York or San Francisco and headed to smaller, quieter spots absolutely skyrocketed compared to the year before.

In 2020, roughly 100,000 people left my county—King’s County in New York—but only around 50,000 moved in. And you could feel the gap between those two numbers. There were fewer cars, fewer car alarms, fewer pushchairs, fewer screaming babies. Just less life.

National data shows that the younger you were, the more likely you were to move. And people of color were more likely to relocate than white folk.

See, after those rich people left because they had other options, there were waves of not-so-rich people who had to leave because unemployment quadrupled, and they just couldn’t pay their rent.

And then there’s me. A young-ish person of color living in this county where a ton of people are leaving. And weirdly, seeing that data brought out the contrarian in me. I felt some kind of solidarity with those that were staying. I still had my job... I didn’t NEED to leave, and that alone made me WANT to stay.

That was a single tick in the New York column. But what about the other 45 rows I was considering?

"Which city is better for green spaces? Will my London friends be there for me? Which place has got… What about my friends’ kids… I don’t want to miss seeing my goddaughter in London grow up... "

Want to maintain current friendships? Stay in New York. Want to be close to family? Go back to London. Money? New York. Self-deprecation and sarcasm? London.

We hear all the time about how data helps us to make informed rational choices. But I was drowning in data, a bunch of pluses and minuses that just didn’t really add up to a decision.

And then, something weird happened.


I was sitting at the table in my apartment, and I heard this “thwack”. It sounded like something had hit my window, but by the time I looked up, there was nothing to see.

I kind of forgot about it until I left my apartment. And as soon as I opened the porch door, there it was. It was mustardy brown and so small it could've fit in the palm of my hand... A dead bird, lying on its side with its chest still puffed out and its eyes closed.

This was the “thwack”. Now maybe you’ve seen your fair share of dead birds, but I hadn’t. Was this an omen? Something to pull me out of my spreadsheet brain, and get me approaching my decision a different way?

I know, I know: Omens are superstitions, and there is no peer-reviewed science that’s going to back up the idea that Friday the 13th or black cats mean bad luck. But this bird hitting my window, well, it meant something to me. Yes, I believe in science, I believe in facts, but we use all kinds of information to make meaning of the world. And a bird “thwack”, well, it’s a piece of information.

I mean people have been looking for meaning in bird behavior since at least Ancient Greece—it was a practice called ornithomancy, or augury. Apparently, in Ancient Rome, augurs were consulted on all kinds of state matters. They would divine the will of the gods based on where birds appeared in the sky, the way they flew, and the cries they made.

But we’ve lost most of those bird-reading skills over the centuries. Many if not most of us embody different ways to make decisions about the world. We don’t all just rely on numbers and charts. And you don’t have to go all the way back to Ancient Greece to find that.

One of those people who embodies seemingly different ways to be in the world is my mum. So I decided to ring her about this whole bird incident and ask her: Did the universe send me the bird to help me decide whether to fly home for good?

Mum (Dr. Chalabi):
Well, are you going into paranormal stuff? [laughs]

Mona Chalabi:
I’m just saying it’s weird, no?

Mona Chalabi:
That’s my mum, Dr. Chalabi. She believes in fate, and free will. Science, and God’s hand in guiding us. She’s a retired gynecologist, and a devout Muslim.

Mum (Dr. Chalabi):
Maktub, yeah. It's written, yes. If everything is Maktub, the destiny is made and you cannot deviate from this.

Mona Chalabi:
It’s sealed, it’s sealed.

Mum (Dr. Chalabi):
Yeah, you have to go through that. But sometimes, like, God has given us the choice. You have the choice as a human. Otherwise we'd be like angels... the angel, the machines, a machine, a robot.

Mona Chalabi:
So what you’re saying then is, like, God has set out this maze, and at every single turn you’ve got the choice whether to turn left or right. But the paths are set and, and that's what's Maktub. That's what's predestined, is the paths, but you have a choice which path to go down.

Mum (Dr. Chalabi):
Yes. You have the, you have a choice where to go. But sometimes, sometimes, something directs you this way. Something directs you to the right, because when you don’t know where to go—when you are lost, you don’t know where to—but you put your faith in God and you ask for help, he will help you. He’ll direct you.

Mona Chalabi:
The intuitive part of me was just sure that the bird had to mean something. But if this bird IS an omen, what does it mean? Should I stay in New York or should I go to London? I can’t turn to an augur... So maybe, the numbers can help me.

Okay, so let’s jump into the numbers on this whole bird-omen thing. I mean, how many birds fly into windows every year?

Well, I found dozens of studies that were looking at all angles of the bird-window problem. Studies with names like: “An assessment of the collision risk of birds with buildings by phylogeny and behavior using two citizen-science datasets”. Yeah...

To understand them, I came across this great bird researcher called Scott Loss. He is a professor of wildlife ecology. So I called him up.

Mona to Scott:
Would it be fair to describe you as the world's leading expert in dead birds?

Scott Loss:
I’d say that I've thought about this issue and done more research on it than a lot of other people...

Mona Chalabi:
Scott’s research looks into the number of birds killed by human activities. Or, to put it another way, it’s the number of birds that WOULD have lived out their beautiful, natural, airborne lives if humans didn’t have pet cats and build giant glass buildings. And the numbers are staggering.

Scott Loss:
We found a really big range of variation depending on the threat: From free-ranging cats, which we estimated to be the top source of human-caused direct mortality, killing billions of small wildlife per year, to collisions with buildings and their windows, which we estimated in the hundreds of millions to up to a billion birds in North America killed each year. To power lines, which are tens of millions...

Mona Chalabi:
Up to a BILLION dead birds a year... in North America alone? That is a lot of birds... but it’s also a huge range. There’s a BIG difference between hundreds of millions of birds and a billion birds. Scott says that estimate is so broad because it’s just hard to measure this accurately.

Scott Loss:
I think because a lot of the studies don't account for things like scavengers taking birds away between surveys, which cause us to underestimate per-building mortality. We also accounted for that. And for each of these different variables, we tried to base it on as much data as we had, but there was always uncertainty on each of those input pieces...

Mona Chalabi:
There was always uncertainty... because there just wasn’t enough information. The data can only give us a rough impression of reality. There are a lot of dead birds, but there are also many LOST birds. Birds whose lives we just couldn’t count, because some things are innumerable.

There are a couple of ways of looking at these numbers. First, if you take the middle of Scott’s estimate, and say 600 million birds die in the U.S. every year from flying into windows... then that sweet pile of feathers on my front steps really wasn’t all that unusual.

Another way to look at it is this: Instead of looking at it as a raw number, let’s think of it as a percentage.

Okay, so we know that LOADS of birds fly into buildings every year. But as a percentage, it’s not such a huge number. Only about 8%* of birds die in collisions every year in North America. But birds are more likely to die at night, and many of them die flying into non-residential buildings.

So, the percentage of birds that die like my little buddy did—in the daytime, smacked against a piece of residential glass—well, that’s a lot lower than 8%. And that feels a bit more rare, and a little bit more special.

If you look at it that way, my bird was an outlier. See, an outlier is a data point that lies outside the average. Think about a scatter plot—that’s the chart that looks like someone threw a bunch of seeds into the wind. Where those dots cluster, that helps us to see the patterns in the data. But oftentimes, there are dots that are way far away from those clusters, off on their own. THOSE are the outliers.

My bird ended up on my doorstep, not dying of diabetes, not eaten by a pet cat. Surely this outlier was telling me to stick with my flock, to go back to London... that THAT was the good, safe choice.

See what I did there? I just changed the question I asked of the data, and I got a whole other conclusion! One that I liked better.

When I asked whether bird collision deaths were special, the answer was absolutely not. But when I asked if it was likely that an individual bird would die by colliding with a building, it turns out that it’s kind of unlikely, that my bird WAS special. I turned the data around until it told me what I wanted to hear.

Maybe this detective side of me wasn’t going to find a definitive answer in the data. Maybe I had to turn to my intuitive side... Perhaps that’s what those ancient augurs did, too.

Mona Chalabi:
While I was still obsessing over what to do, something happened that made everything much clearer.

A week after the little bird hit my window, my mum had a heart attack. And suddenly, a six-hour flight plus two long car journeys plus a two-hour early check-in felt like a much bigger deal.

Turned out that she needed to have a crucial heart surgery. And when the doctor opened her up to operate on her, he found a ton of scar tissue on her heart. After the operation, when my mum came to, he told her that scar tissue can be caused by emotional pain.

When I first heard about the scars on my mum’s heart, it sounded unbelievable to me that they could be caused by emotions. But the longer I sat with it, the more it started to make sense. Because our feelings don’t live in some separate, less legitimate universe from our bodies. Feelings are a type of information... a type of data. Especially when they can make a heart run fast, legs feel tired, and a brain feel foggy.

Feelings and omens... Science and data... They are all just frameworks for thinking about our world. And I don’t think that one is inherently worth more than the other. In fact, I think they’re inextricable.

When we’re faced with tough decisions, we often lean on one way of knowing. We might turn to a spreadsheet, a friend, a Quran. But society doesn’t respect those things equally.

See, data has a reputation as being something that you just can’t argue with. People actually say all the time: The numbers speak for themselves. But it’s not true. Like a dead bird on your doorstep, data is open to interpretation, and our interpretation is often guided by our gut feelings. They are connected.

Take the weather, for example. I bet you have a weather app that you check pretty often. Let’s say you look at it one morning and it says there’s a 50% chance of rain. Well, you might decide to take an umbrella, while your neighbor might reach the opposite conclusion. See, it’s not just about the number—it also matters how much you care about getting rained on. Are you wearing new shoes? Are you prone to leaving your umbrella in places? Are you feeling optimistic? Are you feeling unlucky? Those other experiences will affect how you see that 50% chance.

Data is not free of bias. It can be twisted and turned and made to mean a whole lot of different things. Listen, I’m a data journalist. I BELIEVE in the power of numbers. I just also believe that there are other lenses we can use to see the world... like intuition.

My little bird reminds me of all of the ways to interpret the world. That even when I’m confused about a decision as big as where to build my life, I can still find solace in all kinds of places: In my gut, in spreadsheets, and in speaking to other lost souls.

In the end, I finally made a decision shortly after my mum’s operation. The endless possibilities from all those statistics suddenly collapsed down into one path. I wanted to be near my mum. That single thing tipped the scales.

So, I decided to move to London.

Now, I’m with my mum who’s doing well after her surgery.

Mum (Dr. Chalabi):

Mona Chalabi:
I’m in a larger space then I could have EVER had in New York. (Hello!)

And I’m happy-ish. I gave up on the idea of a definitive, right answer here. Because no matter how much information I would look at, I just wasn’t going to land at certainty.

So rather than sticking with indecision, I made a choice, albeit one with uncertain outcomes. I chose to accept not knowing. And I’m okay with that.

Am I Normal? is part of the TED Audio Collective. It’s hosted and produced by me, Mona Chalabi, and brought to you by TED and Transmitter Media. This episode was produced by Lacy Roberts and Wilson Sayre, who are also our Managing Producers. Sara Nics is Transmitter’s Executive Editor and Gretta Cohn is our Executive Producer. The TED Team is Michelle Quint, Banban Cheng, and Roxanne Hai Lash. Jennifer Nam is our fantastic researcher and fact checker. Additional production by Domino Sound.

That original theme song is by Sasami. Michelle Macklem is our sound designer and mix engineer. Additional help from Debbie Daughtry.

And a big thanks to a one-time bird owner, my mum.

For the transcripts and research that I talked about in this show, you can check out the link in the description.

We are back next week with more Am I Normal? Make sure that you follow the show in your favorite podcast app so that you can get every episode delivered straight to your device. And if you enjoyed the show and want to support us, then you can hit the share button and send it to that friend who won’t stop asking where they should live!

You can find more from this episode’s guest, Scott Loss, at the Loss Lab at Oklahoma State University, and on the lab’s Twitter.

*This rough estimate of 8% was calculated based on two studies: Scott Loss’s median estimate of bird deaths by building collision per year—600 million—compared to this study’s estimate of the decline of the North American bird population by about 3 billion birds, or 29%, since 1970, which we extrapolated to a current population of about 7 billion birds in North America. 600 million birds out of a total of 7 billion birds would be approximately 8% of North American birds dying in building collisions each year.